City Life Peking: Chinese chuck out the chintz

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MOST CHINESE notions of simple, elegant design disappeared in the mid-17th century with the Ming Dynasty, but a private revolution is under way inside Pekingers' homes. Western style gurus may sneer, but Peking is suddenly enthralled by colour co-ordinated sofa coverings, laminated wooden flooring, matching sheets and curtains, and even schnapps glasses. China's emerging middle class has never seen anything like it.

Ikea has hit Peking, and half a million visitors have rolled up to see for themselves in the past seven weeks. The Scandinavian furnishings group has opened its first store in the Chinese capital, bringing traffic to a standstill as up to 35,000 visitors turned up one Saturday to marvel at visions of flat-pack furniture and eat Swedish meatballs in the in- store cafe. "We've stayed here nearly two hours," said 25-year-old Gong Jiawen, who was taking a rest on some rafia chairs with her parents. Her 56-year-old father said: "It's interesting, it is simple, it is clean, a fresh feeling."

China's housing reform has stalled with the economic slowdown, but millions of families have already bought their own apartments over the past couple of years, in a privatisation similar to the Thatcher council house sell- off in the UK. And there is nothing like home ownership to transform the way Chinese people feel about their apartments. When the flats belonged to the factory or ministry, no one was interested in spending money on refitting the bathroom, but now that the work units have handed over the property deeds, interior decoration is all the rage.

Tomorrow is Chinese New Year, the country's biggest annual holiday, and one that traditionally has involved cleaning the home. As the Year of the Rabbit rings in, many families are indulging in much more than just the ritual sweep of the kitchen, preferring to rip out the whole thing and start again. Household fittings and furniture are now the desired items for the upwardly mobile.

At Ikea, the schnapps glasses have sold out, presumably diverted for use with maotai rice wine. And furniture with hidden storage capacity or which folds away is proving a hit in a city where living space is cramped and crowded. "At home we do not have enough space, with six of us in just two bedrooms and a living room," explained Cui Zhonghui, a 47-year-old cook, as he climbed back down a ladder from a bunkbed unit suspended above a desk and office arrangement. "So this would be good at home."

Unexpected quick movers have included a large amount of baking ware. "I'd heard that Chinese people don't bake, but either the expatriate community have all their cupboards full of baking equipment, or else there are lots of Chinese starting to bake," said the store manager, Gordon Gustavsson.

Favourite with the visitors are Ikea's complete room settings on the top floor, where one can find whole families settling down on the sofas or inspecting the cupboards. Some customers actually bring out their jars of hot tea as they lounge about. "The exhibition is like a home," said Wang Shaokun, 28, a primary school teacher. Mr Gustavsson said some visitors want to copy whole set-up rooms as a job-lot. "Many of the customers say, `OK, I'll have one of those!'" In a straw poll conducted by The Independent, the kitchens and bathrooms proved the most popular.

With three times as many visitors some weeks as the store had anticipated, it is all a bit overwhelming for the store manager.

"Some days, all you see is a lot of people, and as a Scandinavian, I'm not that used to that amount of people! They are parking all over the place." The shop stopped all advertising before the formal January opening, because it could not cope with the crush.

Zhu Chuandong, a 40-year-old computer expert who bought his apartment two years ago, said: "It brings to the people a new lifestyle, it is different from the traditional Chinese consumption concepts." The restrained design is completely alien to China, where interior decoration usually involves bright colours, shiny gold and mirrors, a multitude of patterns, and even such special touches as fake Greek columns and plastic fruit. One woman who did not want to give her name was unsure: "The design and colour is a bit simple. I think the kitchen should be more decorative besides being functional," she said.

The most common request in the Ikea Suggestion Box in Peking is that the store introduce a home interior design service to take the anxiety out of choosing from the sleek new offerings. But so far Ikea has made just a single concession to local prejudices, with Peking the only one of its stores to sell chopsticks. Swedish-designed chopsticks? "No, just chopsticks," said Mr Gustavsson.